Proms Saturday MatinÈe 1

Yet I cannot help but wish that someone had shown the imagination and
necessary determination to programme Boulez’s electronic masterpiece,
RÈpons: for once, surely a work that might have been revealed to good
advantage in the Royal Albert Hall. For that, one alas — as so often — has
not only to go elsewhere, but abroad: be it to Paris, Amsterdam, Salzburg… (I
have opted for Salzburg next month, and look forward to the Ensemble
Intercontemporain under Matthias Pintscher revealing the work in the flesh to
me for the first time.)

Anyway, missed opportunities aside — by the way, how about some
Stockhausen? I’ve never heard a better-suited ‘RAH work’ than Cosmic
— we heard a well-, often very well-performed Proms MatinÈe
at Cadogan Hall, with no shortage of music that was either new to the country
or new to the world. First up were three of Johannes Schˆllhorn’s
arrangements for ensemble of Notations (the piano originals, not
Boulez’s extraordinary orchestral expansions). The Birmingham Contemporary
Music Group under Franck Ollu sounded slightly unfocused to start with, but
Notation X had a very keen rhythmic sense. La TreiziËme was a nice
surprise: one bar from each of the twelve added together, to form another,
intriguingly unified twelve-bar piece. It actually put me a little in mind of
the revisiting of earlier waltzes in Ravel’s Valses nobles et
, though perhaps I am just being a little
sentimental there.I liked Schˆllhorn’s
very much when I heard it at the Wigmore Hall last year;
we need to hear more of him in this country. A Proms performance of a
larger-scale work would be greatly appreciated another season.

Shiori Usui’s Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. will surely face
little competition for the foreseeable future in the world of nomenclature. We
learned from a brief conversation between the composer and Tom Service that the
piece is named after an infectious fungus which works its negative magic upon
ants. (Whilst I remember, the printed programmes for the Saturday MatinÈes
are, quite simply, a disgrace: not a single word on either the works or the
non-Boulez composers. Can something equivalent to the evening concerts, or at
least something better than that not be managed?) In five very short movements
— ‘Camponotus leonarci’, ‘Spores’, ‘Pathology’, ‘The Grip’,
and ‘Hyphae’ — we heard a considerable array of ensemble colour, very
different in each case. There was perhaps a sense of Boulezian Èclat,
albeit more overtly, or at least conventionally, thematic, and also sometimes
more tonal in language. It was elevating to see one newspaper critic rise from
his seat and leave after that performance; it will be interesting to see
whether his review covers the rest of the concert.

Betsy Jolas is but a year younger than Boulez. We seem to hear her music
very little in this country; the United Kingdom premiere of Wanderlied
was therefore especially welcome. Wanderlied was inspired by the idea
of an old woman (the cello) travelling from town to town as storyteller, the
tile borrowed from a 1943 poem by Jolas’s father. Crowds gather around the
woman and comment, but two people in the crowd do not like her, yet continue to
follow. What emerged was a long-breathed, humorous piece, assure both of craft
and emotional expression, timbre not surprisingly an important connecting force
between the two, insofar — a big ‘insofar’ — as they may be separated.
I thought of it as, in a way, a song without words, or perhaps better a cantata
without words. Jolas looked, by the way, almost incredibly sprightly on stage,
so we have every reason to hear a good deal more from her, programming

I wish I could be so enthusiastic, or indeed at all enthusiastic, about
Joanna Lee’s Hammer of Solitude. The idea fits, clearly a reference
to Le Marteau sans maÓtre — and the participation of Hilary Summers
fitted too. Summers proved her usual self, that most individual of voices as
communicative with words and notes as one could ask for. Alas, the three
movements — ‘The hammer alone in the house’, ‘A presentiment’, and
‘A suicide’ — seem strangely childish, which is not to say childlike, in
construction and expression. Word-painting is obsessive, yet basic, almost as
if following a guide in a compositional exercise. The (very) sub-Berberian
noises at the opening hint at a greater ambition, which yet remains unrealised.
The final line: ‘Release complete, relief’. Quite.

Finally, DÈrive 2. It is the Boulez work I still find the most
difficult to come to grips with; I cannot claim to ‘understand’ it and
indeed find it almost disconcertingly ‘pleasant’ in its progress.
Boulez’s constructivism, albeit a flowing constructivism, came across clearly
and, crucially, with structural as well as expressive meaning. The ghost of
Messiaen seemed intriguingly to hover, or rather to fly, at times, not least in
some of those gloriously splashy piano chords. The ‘lead’ taken by
different instruments at different times was, perhaps, more than usually
apparent, suggesting almost an updated sinfonia concertante, whereas, for
instance, Daniel Barenboim’s performances (seehere
and here;
number three will come in Salzburg next month) have emerged, at least to my
ears, as more orchestrally conceived. As is the way with even half-decent
performances of such music, I noticed things I had never heard before.
Something that especially struck me on this occasion was the timbral similarity
— surely testament to Boulez’s work as conductor — to a passage in
The Rite of Spring. I shall have to look at the scores to find where
and when, or perhaps I shall never re-discover what my ears were telling me on
that occasion. Such is a good part of the mystery and the magic of live

Mark Berry

Programme and performers:

Boulez, arr. Johannes Schˆllhorn — Notations II, XI, X
(1945, arr. 2011, United Kingdom premiere); Schˆllhorn — La
(2011, United Kingdom premiere); Shiori Usui —
Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. (2015, world premiere); Betsy Jolas
Wanderlied (2003, United Kingdom premiere); Joanna Lee —
Hammer of Solitude (2015, BBC commission, world premiere); Boulez —
DÈrive 2 (1988-2006, rev.2009).

Ulrich Heinen (cello)/Hilary Summers (contralto)/Birmingham
Contemporary Music Group /Franck Ollu (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London,
Saturday 25 July 2015.

image_description=Pierre Boulez
product_title=Proms Saturday MatinÈe 1
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Pierre Boulez